From the vaults: Conundrum (15/08/2010)


Not sure if this should bother me a lot, a little, or (in context) not at all.

There’s this piece of land: a triangular patch of unmade ground, mostly given over to bramble, hawthorn and nettle. Over the years I’ve known it, it has been criss-crossed; by people and by the lattice of paths they have created, all of which lead back to a couple of entry and exit points. It is the type of rough, open space to be found the length and breadth of the country; unused, uncultivated, unremarkable; not strictly common ground but of indeterminate ownership. This particular piece is land-locked between farmer’s fields and a railway cutting; it is most likely old railway land, now owned by Network Rail.

Since I first discovered it – more than 25 years ago, in my running days – it has been a place of occasional use by walkers, runners and people exercising dogs. I’ve seen a vixen with a young family there, countless rabbits, any number of different hedgerow birds, raptors and carrion-eaters. It is probably best described as a place to be passed through on the way to or from elsewhere.

And now the fences have gone up!

In the space of a few days this barrier appeared: good quality timbers, well constructed, sturdy enough to protect a stockade. Notices too – small enough to be discreet, but plentiful enough not to be missed: No access, Private Property, Keep Out …

There’s still a path: a good path as it goes – nicely levelled; vegetation cut back; better than any of the rough old improvised walkways that preceded it. It’s unlikely any access rights have been infringed here, so where’s the problem?

The dilemma for me is that, while bristling at what appears to be a heavy-handed and disproportionate declaration of ownership, I equally deplore the behaviour which has, in all likelihood, precipitated it. For a couple of years now the area has been used by groups of BMX (if that’s what they’re still called) bikers, availing themselves of – and sometimes modifying – the undulating terrain. Not to put too fine a point on it the place has, over that same period, been turned into a tip and it’s hard to believe that the events are coincidental. Discarded cans from high-energy drinks and sometimes alcohol; food and confectionary wrappers; plastic bags – tossed into the undergrowth or just left where they lie. This lack of respect for the environment has probably caused the (admittedly minor) constraint on my right to roam and I’m left in the position of having no real argument with the restriction.

If there is an upside it is that the undergrowth, undisturbed, might well evolve into an even better habitat for wildlife. Wildlife which will unfortunately now have to viewed from the other side of a fence.


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